The Toronto Raptors and the New Orleans Pelicans will open their NBA season Wednesday night on a neutral court in Tampa, Fla.
Travel restrictions in Canada because of the COVID-19 pandemic mean the Raptors will play their home games at the Amalie Arena, home of the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning. The arena will be dressed up to look like the Raptors’ home court at Toronto’s Scotiabank Arena, complete with their own floor and the 2019 NBA championship banner hanging from the rafters.
The teams also met in the season opener last season with the Raptors winning 130-122 in overtime at Toronto.
The Pelicans, who failed to qualify for the playoffs last season, have a new coach in Stan Van Gundy, who’s expected to emphasize defense.
The Pelicans lost Derrick Favors as a free agent and traded Jrue Holiday to the Milwaukee Bucks in the offseason. They acquired Steven Adams and Eric Bledsoe in trades and Kira Lewis Jr. in the draft.
Zion Williamson is looking forward to playing more games and more minutes, hopefully free from injury. As a rookie, Williamson played 33 minutes or more just three times in 24 games.
“With Zion, we’ve really pushed it out (in preseason),” Van Gundy said. “We’ve left him out there at times when we knew damn well he was tired. But how are we going to get him to handle that 33-, 34-minute workload on a nightly basis if we don’t do it?”
Bledsoe will work with point guard Lonzo Ball. Brandon Ingram and J.J. Redick to provide scoring ability with Adams providing defense.
Ball, Bledsoe, Ingram, Williamson and Adams are the starters. Josh Hart and Redick are the top reserves. Next in line are Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Jaxson Hayes, Nicolo Melli and Lewis.
“I’m pretty happy all-around with our guys,” Van Gundy said. “It’s a deep team. We’re probably not going to play 13 guys. We’ll probably play eight or nine. Other guys are going to get a look when there are injuries, foul trouble, things like that.”
The Raptors, who were eliminated in the second round of the playoffs by the Boston Celtics last season, lost two key big men when Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol departed as free agents. Toronto signed free-agent Aron Baynes to help fill that gap.
Guard Malachi Flynn, obtained in the draft, has made a good early impression.
The Raptors retained free-agent point guard Fred VanVleet with a four-year, $85-million deal. Point guard Kyle Lowry also will continue to be the team’s catalyst, while Pascal Siakam will be trying to improve on his disappointing performance when the teams picked up last season in the bubble near Orlando.
The Raptors also showed that they will continue to build from within by signing OG Anunoby to a four-year deal worth $72-million.
“OG is the epitome of the skilled, powerful, determined player we want in our organization long term,” Raptors general manager Bobby Webster said in a release.
The Raptors might have a different appearance after their changes.
“Serge and Marc were very big pieces of what we did over the last few years, certainly big parts of the championship team and last year even more,” VanVleet said. “Those two guys were such a huge piece of what we did, and I don’t think that we have to necessarily replace them, but I think just the dynamic will be different and the way we play might look a little different. We haven’t changed our expectations at all. We feel just as good about this team as we felt last year, it’s just going to look different.”
–Field Level Media